Social Media In Times Of Distress

When a dearly beloved relative died a few months back, I was heartbroken. As with all sad situations, it was, borrowing from Rowling, a dementor attack – I felt like I could never be happy again. Yet, six months later, despite the occasional feeling of wanting to sit in a dark corner and brood, I am largely ok. I drive the kid to school and her various classes, listening to One Direction and Taylor Swift in the car, plan meals, write articles, edit documents, keep house – in short, live life as usual. The chats, both in person, and online, with friends distributed across various countries of the world, their words of compassion and support, and practice of actions prescribed by various sites thrown out by google (“how to overcome grief”, “how to survive depression” etc.) played a critical role in allowing me to come to terms with my emotional tempest. The digital age seemed to augment the healing process of time itself. - Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and co-author of this article.
Grieving young woman
Grieving young woman

Given my obsession with Internet and its effects on society, I sought information on how the Internet, and in particular, social media can help us tide over emotionally difficult periods. Pew Research studied the emotional support provided by online social networks and found that internet users experienced significant support through social networks, particularly through Facebook.

This result is not surprising in that social media is a fertile ground for interpersonal interaction. It provides access, not only to supportive individuals but also support networks and knowledge needed to combat/cope with distress. However, there are conflicting opinions about the role of social media (in particular, Facebook) on the emotional health of users. While there have been studies that show that social media develops and maintains social capital and social connectedness, there are also contrasting reports of social overload and a decrease in life satisfaction. Short term use of FB has been characterized by high positive valence, while Facebook has been known to trigger invidious emotions such as jealousy and envy. Social media users who consume the highest amounts of content report a decrease in social bonding and an increase in loneliness. A study that focused on the role of Twitter as a medium for communication by individuals with mental disorder showed the usefulness of online social media as both a discursive space and a medium of feedback to mental health service providers.

Which of these is true? Social media enables us to stay in touch with friends, unconstrained by geography. Given that strong interpersonal ties are known to provide emotional support especially in difficult times, has the digital age, with its social networking tools, reduced the time taken to heal? Or is the digital connectivity merely an illusion?

A project funded by the European Research Council, called “ReDefTie” (“Redefining Tie Strength”) examined the causal relationships between social media use and indicators of emotional and informational social support among Dutch online users. The longitudinal study showed that social media makes people less lonely, less stressed and less satisfied with their life. In fact, correlational and experimental studies showed that positive emotions are more prevalent than negative emotions when browsing the Facebook newsfeed. Social media has been known to trigger the release of the feel-good brain chemicals, dopamine and oxytoxin, which during times of distress can be a source of comfort.

ReDefTie also found that the envy experienced on Facebook is “benign” envy, rather than malicious envy. Benign envy is conceivably a positive emotion and could be beneficial in that it offers motivation for people to work harder to achieve what their envied friends have. Positive emotions (happiness, benign envy) were influenced by tie strength in social media, i.e., the emotionally closer the person who posts something positive on Facebook is to the reader, the stronger the emotion (emotional contagion). Malicious envy, however, is independent of tie strength and only related to trait jealousy and low self-esteem.

Consoling a young boy
Consoling a young boy

Beyond receiving support on social networking sites, expressing emotions in them could also be cathartic. Although social media cannot change the way distress is perceived and experienced, it has possibly changed the way in which people share their emotions. Social networking has expanded to encompass every aspect of life; and people have resorted to it to express grief or sadness despite the medium itself straddling the line between public and private. Many social media users acknowledge that their SM community is something more than an affirmation and endorsement shown by a thumbs up or a like button, and is a path to the “we” in times of distress. Social media can apparently mediate the nature of distress itself. Professor Garry Hare, program director for media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, postulates that SM foments the grieving process and “sets it within the context of a community that comes together and says you are not alone.” Social media can provide a framework conducive to the expression of sympathy.

A cursory web search on the relationship between social media and emotions spews out articles on how social media is bad for our emotional well-being. That may or may not be true during “normal” times and depends, not just on the SM application but the user and her environment. During traumatic times, it cannot be denied that social media can foster the emotional support so critically needed. However, there are not many studies that have quantified the supportive effect of social media during grief and distress. Behavioral psychologists could look into this area and provide insights that can make social media even more useful during difficult times. Given that the current youth is a digital generation that resorts to the Internet and social media for all its requirements, they may, as they grow into the real world of joys and sorrows, require social media to help handle distress as well. Such research will undoubtedly give social media more power to support the future world comprehensively.

Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and researcher who dwells on the role and extent of social media interactions in life.

Mobicip is the creator of the most powerful and extensive internet safety software for tablets, smartphones and computers in households today. Learn more at

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